Becoming Your Own Therapist

By Lama Thubten Yeshe
Australia and New Zealand (Archive #329)

This book contains public talks by Lama Yeshe on the general topic of the mind that provide a clear and accessible introduction to Buddhism. It is published in conjunction with Make Your Mind an Ocean.

See the Related Links for Chapters Two and Three to access the original audio recordings and read along with the unedited transcripts.

Lama Yeshe, 1975, Lake Arrowhead, California during the first American course. Photo by Carol Royce-Wilder.
Chapter One: Finding Ourselves Through Buddhism

When we study Buddhism, we are studying ourselves, the nature of our own minds. Instead of focusing on some supreme being, Buddhism emphasizes more practical matters, such as how to lead our lives, how to integrate our minds and how to keep our everyday lives peaceful and healthy. In other words, Buddhism always accentuates experiential knowledge-wisdom rather than some dogmatic view. In fact, we don’t even consider Buddhism to be a religion in the usual sense of the term. From the lamas’ point of view, Buddhist teachings are more in the realm of philosophy, science or psychology.

The human mind instinctively seeks happiness. East, West—there’s no difference; everybody’s doing the same thing. But if your search for happiness is causing you to grasp emotionally at the sense world, it can be very dangerous. You have no control.

Now, don’t think that control is an Eastern thing, a Buddhist thing. We all need control, especially those of us caught up in the materialistic life; psychologically, emotionally, we’re too involved in objects of attachment. From the Buddhist point of view, that’s an unhealthy mind; the person is mentally ill.

Actually, you already know that external, scientific technological development alone cannot satisfy the desires of your attachment or solve your other emotional problems. But what Lord Buddha’s teaching shows you is the characteristic nature of human potential, the capacity of the human mind. When you study Buddhism, you learn what you are and how to develop further; instead of emphasizing some kind of supernatural belief system, Buddhist methods teach you to develop a deep understanding of yourself and all other phenomena.

However, whether you are religious or a materialist, a believer or an atheist, it is crucial that you know how your own mind works. If you don’t, you’ll go around thinking you’re healthy, when in reality, the deep root of afflictive emotions, the true cause of all psychological disease, is there, growing within you. Because of that, all it takes is some tiny external thing changing, something insignificant going wrong, and within a few seconds, you’re completely upset. To me, that shows you’re mentally ill. Why? Because you’re obsessed with the sense world, blinded by attachment, and under the control of the fundamental cause of all problems, not knowing the nature of your own mind.

It doesn’t matter if you try to refute what I’m saying by telling me that you don’t believe it. It’s not a question of belief. No matter how much you say, “I don’t believe I have a nose,” your nose is still there, right between your eyes. Your nose is always there, whether you believe it or not.

I’ve met many people who proudly proclaim, “I’m not a believer.” They’re so proud of their professed lack of belief in anything. You check up; this is important to know. In the world today there are so many contradictions. Scientific materialists boast, “I don’t believe”; religious people say, “I believe.” But no matter what you think, you still need to know the characteristic nature of your own mind. If you don’t, then no matter how much you talk about the shortcomings of attachment, you have no idea what attachment actually is or how to control it. Words are easy. What’s really difficult is to understand the true nature of attachment.

For example, when people first made cars and planes, their intention was to be able to do things more quickly so that they’d have more time for rest. But what’s happened instead is that people are more restless than ever. Examine your own everyday life. Because of attachment, you get emotionally involved in a concrete sense world of your own creation, denying yourself the space or time to see the reality of your own mind. To me, that’s the very definition of a difficult life. You cannot find satisfaction or enjoyment. The truth is that pleasure and joy actually come from the mind, not from objective phenomena.

Nevertheless, some intelligent, skeptical people do understand to a degree that material objects do not guarantee a worthwhile, enjoyable life and are trying to see if there really is something else that might offer true satisfaction.

When Lord Buddha spoke about suffering, he wasn’t referring simply to superficial problems like illness and injury, but to the fact that the dissatisfied nature of the mind itself is suffering. No matter how much of something you get, it never satisfies your desire for better or more. This unceasing desire is suffering; its nature is emotional frustration.

Buddhist psychology describes six basic emotions that frustrate the human mind, disturbing its peace, making it restless: ignorance, attachment, anger, pride, deluded doubt and distorted views. These are mental attitudes, not external phenomena. Buddhism emphasizes that to overcome these delusions, the root of all your suffering, belief and faith are not much help: you have to understand their nature.

If you do not investigate your own mind with introspective knowledge-wisdom, you will never see what’s in there. Without checking, no matter how much you talk about your mind and your emotions, you’ll never really understand that your basic emotion is egocentricity and that this is what’s making you restless.

Now, to overcome your ego you don’t have to give up all your possessions. Keep your possessions; they’re not what’s making your life difficult. You’re restless because you are clinging to your possessions with attachment; ego and attachment pollute your mind, making it unclear, ignorant and agitated, and prevent the light of wisdom from growing. The solution to this problem is meditation.

Meditation does not imply only the development of single pointed concentration, sitting in some corner doing nothing. Meditation is an alert state of mind, the opposite of sluggishness; meditation is wisdom. You should remain aware every moment of your daily life, fully conscious of what you are doing and why and how you are doing it.

We do almost everything unconsciously. We eat unconsciously; we drink unconsciously; we talk unconsciously. Although we claim to be conscious, we are completely unaware of the afflictions rampaging through our minds, influencing everything we do.

Check up for yourselves; experiment. I’m not being judgmental or putting you down. This is how Buddhism works. It gives you ideas that you can check out in your own experience to see if they’re true or not. It’s very down-to-earth; I’m not talking about something way up there in the sky. It’s actually a very simple thing.

If you don’t know the characteristic nature of attachment and its objects, how can you generate loving kindness towards your friends, your parents or your country? From the Buddhist point of view, it’s impossible. When you hurt your parents or your friends, it’s your unconscious mind at work. When acting out his anger, the angry person is completely oblivious as to what’s happening in his mind. Being unconscious makes us hurt and disrespect other sentient beings; being unaware of our own behavior and mental attitude makes us lose our humanity. That’s all. It’s so simple, isn’t it?

These days, people study and train to become psychologists. Lord Buddha’s idea is that everybody should become a psychologist. Each of us should know our own mind; you should become your own psychologist. This is definitely possible; every human being has the ability to understand his or her own mind. When you understand your own mind, control follows naturally.

Don’t think that control is just some Himalayan trip or that it must be easier for people who don’t have many possessions. That’s not necessarily true. Next time you are emotionally upset, check for yourself. Instead of busily doing something to distract yourself, relax and try to become aware of what you’re doing. Ask yourself, “Why am I doing this? How am I doing it? What’s the cause?” You will find this to be a wonderful experience. Your main problem is a lack of intensive know-ledge-wisdom, awareness, or consciousness. Therefore, you will discover that through understanding, you can easily solve your problems.

To feel loving kindness for others, you have to know the nature of the object. If you don’t, then even though you say, “I love him; I love her,” it’s just your arrogant mind taking you on yet another ego trip. Make sure you know how and why. It is very important that you become your own psychologist. Then you can treat yourself through the understanding wisdom of your own mind; you’ll be able to relax with and enjoy your friends and possessions instead of becoming restless and berserk and wasting your life.

To become your own psychologist, you don’t have to learn some big philosophy. All you have to do is examine your own mind every day. You already examine material things every day—every morning you check out the food in your kitchen—but you never investigate your mind. Checking your mind is much more important.

Nevertheless, most people seem to believe the opposite. They seem to think that they can simply buy the solution to whatever problem they’re facing. The materialistic attitude that money can buy whatever you need to be happy, that you can purchase a peaceful mind, is obviously not true, but even though you may not say the words, this is what you’re thinking. It’s a complete misconception.

Even people who consider themselves religious need to understand their own minds. Faith alone never stops problems; understanding knowledge-wisdom always does. Lord Buddha himself said that belief in Buddha was dangerous; that instead of just believing in something, people should use their minds to try to discover their own true nature. Belief based on understanding is fine; once you realize or are intellectually clear about something, belief follows automatically. However, if your faith is based on misconceptions it can easily be destroyed by what others say.

Unfortunately, even though they consider themselves religious, many spiritually inclined people are weak. Why? Because they don’t understand the true nature of their mind. If you really know what your mind is and how it works, you’ll understand that it’s mental energy that prevents you from being healthy. When you understand your own mind’s view, or perception, of the world, you’ll realize that not only are you constantly grasping at the sense world, but also that what you’re grasping at is merely imaginary. You will see that you’re too concerned with what’s going to happen in a non-existent future and totally unconscious of the present moment, that you are living for a mere projection. Don’t you agree that a mind that is unconscious in the present and constantly grasping at the future is unhealthy?

It is important to be conscious in your everyday life. The nature of conscious awareness and wisdom is peace and joy. You don’t need to grasp at some future resultant joy. As long as you follow the path of right understanding and right action to the best of your ability, the result will be immediate, simultaneous with the action. You don’t have to think, “If I spend my lifetime acting right, perhaps I’ll get some good result in my next life.” You don’t need to obsess over the attainment of future realizations. As long as you act in the present with as much understanding as you possibly can, you’ll realize everlasting peace in no time at all.

And I think that’s enough from me. Better that we have a question and answer session, instead of my talking all the time. Thank you.

Q: When you were talking about meditation, you didn’t mention visualization. It seems that some people find it relatively easy to visualize while others find it quite difficult. How important is it to develop the ability to visualize things in the mind?

Lama: Many people have trouble visualizing what’s described to them simply because they have not trained their minds in it, but for others it’s because they have a poor imagination; they’re too physical. Perhaps they think that all there is to their being is their physical body, that there’s no mind apart from their brain. However, Buddhism has methods whereby you can train your mind and develop the ability to visualize in meditation. But in reality, you visualize all day long. The breakfast you eat in the morning is a visualization. Whenever you go shopping and think, “This is nice,” or “I don’t like that,” whatever you’re looking at is a projection of your own mind. When you get up in the morning and see the sun shining and think, “Oh, it’s going to be nice today,” that’s your own mind visualizing. Actually, visualization is quite well understood. Even shopkeepers and advertising agents know the importance of visualization, so they create displays or billboards to attract your attention: “Buy this!” They know that things you see affect your mind, your visualization. Visualization is not something supernatural; it’s scientific.

Q: From what you say, I get the impression you’re somewhat critical of the West, that you laugh at what we do and the way we try to civilize the uncivilized. I don’t really have a question, but what future do you see for mankind in terms of what the so-called progressive West is developing: bigger planes, bigger houses, bigger supermarkets? What future do you see for the West?

Lama: I see that Western people are getting busier and busier, more and more restless. I’m not criticizing material or technological development as such, but rather the uncontrolled mind. Because you don’t know who or what you are, you spend your life blindly grasping at what I call “supermarket goodness.” You agitate your own life; you make yourself restless. Instead of integrating your life, you splinter it. Check up for yourself. I’m not putting you down. In fact, Buddhism doesn’t allow us to dogmatically put down anybody else’s way of life. All I’m trying to suggest is that you consider looking at things another way.

Q: Lama, like yourself, most of the Tibetan teachers we see are men. I was wondering if there are any female rinpoches or tulkus?

Lama: Yes, of course. Men and women are completely equal when it comes to developing higher states of mind. In Tibet, monks would sometimes take teachings from female rinpoches. Buddhism teaches that you can’t judge people from the outside; you can’t say, “He’s nothing; I’m special.” You can never really tell by outer appearances who’s higher and who’s lower.

Q: Is the role of a Buddhist nun very different from that of a monk?

Lama: Not really. They study the same things and teach their students in the same way.

Q: Sometimes it’s hard to find a teacher. Is it dangerous to try to practice tantra, for example, without a teacher, just by reading books?

Lama: Yes, very dangerous. Without specific instructions, you can’t just pick up a book on tantra and think, “Wow, what fantastic ideas. I want to practice this right now!” This kind of attitude never brings realizations. You need the guidance of an experienced teacher. Sure, the ideas are fantastic, but if you don’t know the method, you can’t put them into your own experience; you have to have the key. Many Buddhist books have been translated into English. They’ll tell you, “Attachment is bad; don’t get angry,” but how do you actually abandon attachment and anger? The Bible, too, recommends universal love, but how do you bring universal love into your own experience? You need the key, and sometimes only a teacher can give you that.

Q: What should people in the West do when they can’t find a teacher? Should those who are really searching go to the East to find one?

Lama: Don’t worry. When the time is right, you’ll meet your teacher. Buddhism doesn’t believe that you can push other people: “Everybody should learn to meditate; everybody should become Buddhists.” That’s stupid. Pushing people is unwise. When you’re ready, some kind of magnetic energy will bring you together with your teacher. About going to the East, it depends on your personal situation. Check up. The important thing is to search with wisdom and not blind faith. Sometimes, even if you go to the East, you still can’t find a teacher. It takes time.

Q: What is the Buddhist attitude towards suicide?

Lama: People who take their own lives have no understanding of the purpose or value of being born human. They kill themselves out of ignorance. They can’t find satisfaction, so they think, “I’m hopeless.”

Q: If a person, out of ignorance perhaps, believes he has achieved enlightenment, what is his purpose in continuing to live?

Lama: An ignorant person who thinks he’s enlightened is completely mentally polluted and is simply compounding the ignorance he already has. All he has to do is to check the actions of his uncontrolled mind and he’ll realize he’s not enlightened. Also, you don’t have to ask others, “Am I enlightened?” Just check your own experiences. Enlightenment is a highly personal thing.

Q: I like the way that you stress the importance of understanding over belief, but I find it difficult to know how a person brought up in the West or given a scientific education can understand the concept of reincarnation: past, present and future lives. How can you prove that they exist?

Lama: If you can realize your own mind’s continuity from the time you were a tiny embryo in your mother’s womb up to the present time, then you’ll understand. The continuity of your mental energy is a bit like the flow of electricity from a generator through the wires until it lights up a lamp. From the moment it’s conceived, as your body evolves, mental energy is constantly running through it—changing, changing, changing—and if you can realize that, you can more easily understand your own mind’s previous continuity. As I keep saying, it’s never simply a question of belief. Of course, initially it’s difficult to accept the idea of reincarnation because these days it’s such a new concept for most people, especially those brought up in the West. They don’t teach you continuity of consciousness in school; you don’t study the nature of the mind—who you are, what you are—in college. So of course, it’s all new to you. But if you think it’s important to know who and what you are, and you investigate your mind through meditation, you will easily come to understand the difference between your body and your mind; you will recognize the continuity of your own consciousness; from there you will be able to realize your previous lives. It is not necessary to accept reincarnation on faith alone.

Q: Could you please explain the relationship between meditation, enlightenment and supernormal mental powers, such as seeing the future, reading other people’s minds and seeing what’s happening in a place that’s far away?

Lama: While it’s definitely possible to achieve clairvoyance through developing single-pointed concentration, we have a long way to go. As you slowly, slowly gain a better understanding of your own mind, you will gradually develop the ability to see such things. But it’s not that easy, where you meditate just once and all of a sudden you can see the future or become enlightened. It takes time.

Q: If you are meditating, working towards enlightenment, do these powers come with control or just all of a sudden, with no control at all?

Lama: True powers come with control. They’re not like the uncontrolled emotional hallucinations you experience after you’ve taken drugs. Even before you reach enlightenment, you can develop insight into your past and future lives and read other people’s minds, but this comes about only through the controlled and gradual development of wisdom.

Q: Do you yourself have the power to separate your mind from your body and astral travel or do other things?

Lama: No.

Q: Does His Holiness the Dalai Lama have the power to do that?

Lama: The Mahayana Buddhism of Tibet certainly does contain an unbroken oral tradition of teachings on the development of supernormal powers, which has passed from realized guru to disciple from the time of the Buddha himself down to the present, but even though that teaching exists, it doesn’t mean that I have accomplished it. Furthermore, Tibetan Buddhism prohibits any lama who does have such realizations from proclaiming them. Even when you do attain enlightenment, unless there’s a good reason, you’re not allowed to go around telling everyone that you’re a buddha. Be careful. Our system is different from yours. In the West, you hear of people who say, “Last night God spoke to me in my dreams.” We think it can be dangerous for people to broadcast details of their mystical experiences, therefore, we don’t allow it.

Q: Some years ago I read a book called The Third Eye about a gentleman who had extraordinary powers. Have many people had their third eye opened?

Lama: What the author of that book, Lobsang Rampa, says is a literal misconception. The third eye is not a physical thing but rather a metaphor for wisdom. Your third eye is the one that sees beyond ordinary sense perception into the nature of your own mind.

Q: Since Buddhism believes in reincarnation, can you tell me how long there is between lives?

Lama: It can be anything from a few moments up to seven weeks. At the moment the consciousness separates from the body, the subtle body of the intermediate state is already there, waiting for it. Due to the force of craving for another physical body, the intermediate state being searches for an appropriate form, and when it finds one, it takes rebirth.

Q: How does Buddhism explain the population explosion? If you believe in reincarnation, how is it that the population is expanding all the time?

Lama: That’s simple. Like modern science, Buddhism talks about the existence of billions and billions of galaxies. The consciousness of a person born on earth may have come from a galaxy far away, drawn here by the force of karma, which connects that person’s mental energy to this planet. On the other hand, the consciousness of a person dying on this earth may at the time of death be karmically directed to a rebirth in another galaxy, far from here. If more minds are being drawn to earth, the population increases; if fewer, it declines. That does not mean that brand new minds are coming into existence. Each mind taking rebirth here on earth has come from its previous life—perhaps in another galaxy, perhaps on earth itself, but not from nowhere—in accordance with the cyclic nature of worldly existence.

Q: Is Buddhist meditation better than any other form of meditation or is it simply a case of different forms of meditation suiting different people?

Lama: I can’t say that Buddhist meditation is better than that of other religions. It all depends upon the individual.

Q: If someone were already practicing one form of meditation, say, transcendental meditation, would there be any point in that person trying Buddhist meditation as well?

Lama: Not necessarily. If you find that your meditation practice completely awakens your mind and brings you everlasting peace and satisfaction, why try anything else? But if, despite your practice, your mind remains polluted and your actions are still uncontrolled—constantly, instinctively giving harm to others—I think you have a long way to go, baby. It’s a very personal thing.

Q: Can a bodhisattva be a Marxist in order to create social harmony? I mean, is there a place for the bodhisattva in Marxism or, vice versa, is there a place in Marxism for the bodhisattva? Could Marxism be a tool in the abolition of all sentient beings’ suffering?

Lama: Well, it’s pretty hard for someone like me to comment on a bodhisattva’s actions, but I have my doubts about a bodhisattva becoming a communist in order to stop social problems. Problems exist in the minds of individuals. You have to solve your own problems, no matter what kind of society you live in, socialist, communist or capitalist. You must check your own mind. Your problem is not society’s problem, not my problem. You are responsible for your own problems just as you’re responsible for your own liberation or enlightenment. Otherwise you’re going to say, “Supermarkets help people because they can buy the stuff they need in them. If I work in a supermarket I’ll really be contributing to society.” Then, after doing that for a while, you’re going to say, “Maybe supermarkets don’t help that much after all. I’d be of more help to others if I took a job in an office.” None of those things solve social problems. But first of all you have to check where you got the idea that by becoming a communist, a bodhisattva could help all mother sentient beings.

Q: I was thinking that many people in the world today are hungry and deprived of basic needs and that while they’re preoccupied with hunger and the safety and security of their family, it’s hard for them to grasp the more subtle aspects of phenomena, such as the nature of their own minds.

Lama: Yes, I understand what you are saying. But don’t forget that the starving person preoccupied by hunger and the obese person obsessing over what else to buy in the supermarket are basically the same. Don’t just focus on those who are materially deprived. Mentally, rich and poor are equally disturbed, and, fundamentally, one is as unhappy as the other.

Q: But Lord Krishna united India in a spiritual war, the war of Dharma, and as a result, at one time, all the people of India had the ability to engage in spiritual practice. Couldn’t we now spread the Dharma amongst all the people on earth and establish a better global society through a kind of spiritual socialism?

Lama: First of all, I think that what you’re saying is potentially very dangerous. Only a few people would understand what you’re talking about. Generally, you can’t say that actions that give harm to mother sentient beings are those of a bodhisattva. Buddhism forbids you to kill other sentient beings, even for supposedly religious reasons. In Buddhism, there’s no such thing as a holy war. You have to understand this. And secondly, it’s impossible to equalize everybody on earth through force. Until you fully understand the minds of all beings throughout the universe and have abandoned the minds of self-cherishing and attachment, you will never make all living beings one. It’s impossible.

Q: I don’t mean making all people the same, because obviously there are going to be different mental levels. But we could establish a universal human society on the basis of socialistic economic theory.

Lama: I think you shouldn’t worry about that. You’d be better off worrying about the society of your own mind. That’s more worthwhile, more realistic than making projections about what’s happening in the world around you.

Q: But is it not a spiritual practice to strike a balance between your own self-realization and service to humanity?

Lama: Yes, you can serve society, but you can’t homogenize all sentient beings’ actions simultaneously, just like that. Lord Buddha wants all sentient beings to become enlightened right away, but our negative karma is too strong, so we remain uncontrolled. You can’t wave a magic wand, “I want everybody to be equally happy,” and expect it to happen just like that. Be wise. Only a wise mind can offer equality and peace. You can’t do it through emotional rationalization. And you have to know that communist ideas about how best to equalize sentient beings are very different from those of Lord Buddha. You can’t mix such different ideas. Don’t fantasize; be realistic.

Q: In conclusion, then, are you saying that it’s impossible to create one common spiritual society on this planet?

Lama: Even if you could, it would not stop people’s problems. Even if you made a single society of all the inhabitants of the entire universe, there would still be attachment, there would still be anger, there would still be hunger. Problems lie within each individual. People are not the same; everybody is different. Each of us needs different methods according to our individual psychological makeup, mental attitudes and personality; each of us needs a different approach in order to attain enlightenment. That’s why Buddhism completely accepts the existence of other religions and philosophies. We recognize that they are all necessary for human development. You can’t say that any one way of thinking is right for everybody. That’s just dogma.

Q: What do you say about drugs that expand the consciousness? Can one experience the bardo under the influence of drugs?

Lama: Yes, it’s possible—take an overdose and soon enough you’ll experience the bardo. No, I’m just joking. There’s no way to get the bardo experience through taking drugs.

Q: Can you read people’s auras?

Lama: No, but everybody does have an aura. Aura means vibration. Each of us has our own mental and physical vibration. When you are psychologically upset, your physical environment changes visibly. Everybody goes through that. As science and Buddhism both assert, all physical matter has its own vibration. So people’s mental states affect that vibration of their body, and these changes are reflected in the person’s aura. That’s the simple explanation of the aura. To gain a deep understanding, you have to understand your mind. First learn to read your own mind, then you’ll be able to read the minds of others.

Q: How does meditation remove emotional blockages?

Lama: There are many different ways. One is through understanding the nature of your emotions. That way, your emotion is digested into knowledge-wisdom. Digesting your emotions by wisdom is really worthwhile.

Thank you. Good night. Thank you so much.

Auckland, New Zealand, 7 June 1975